I once spent an entire twelve hour shift keeping someone alive with my hands. Mr. Jones was an older guy who had pulmonary fibrosis, a terrible disease in which the lungs turn to leather. This obviously makes breathing difficult. Please not that I just made up the name. I’ve had lots of patients like him.
The poor man had such bad lungs that he required a high pressure flow of oxygen through a special mask. Removal of this mask would mean death within minutes.
Here is the problem: he kept removing his mask!
Mr. Jones was confused and anxious. The mask would suddenly irritate him. Of course, he didn’t know what was going on! Every couple minutes the mask would come off and an alarm would start blaring. It was an emergency every single time- and I also had other patients to care for. I’d drop what I was doing, come running down the hallway and into his room:
“Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones, we need to keep your oxygen on!” He’d let me put it back on, drift off to a sleep of sorts. I’d go back to the other room, maybe give out some meds, and then:
“Beep-beep! Beep!” Alarms blaring and everyone knew it was Jones.
Get there quickly! He’s starving for air! Hurry Hurry!
For the first four hours I was a champ. I would respond immediately, like fresh coiled spring. I discovered that if I park my cart outside his door I could halve my response time. I was doing great!
The next four hours saw a decline in my enthusiasm. I had been standing across from a bathroom and couldn’t even use it. (Leaving the bathroom door open was not an option either, although I was very much tempted.) I was also getting hungry and wanted to heat up my lunch. I ate right there in the hallway but that could hardly be considered a lunch.
Yet, I carried on. His life was in my hands.
The last third of my shift was miserable. I had run out of patience sometime after hour six, and eagerly looked to the end of my shift. I continued to care for my patient, but the process had become more machine-like. At one point, I found some relief in one of the other nurses. She had been pretty busy herself, but took one look at me and offered to watch my patient for about twenty minutes. I went to the cafeteria, grabbed a coffee and snarfed down a cold hamburger. Then it was back to the gagging, hacking, dying Mr. Jones.
Finally, the shift was over. I handed off the patient and made a beeline for the elevator. Then it was home sweet home.
I pretty much went straight to bed that night. Before falling asleep I got a phone call from my dad. He always wants to know about work.
“Any interesting stories?” he asked, as if talking to a son returning from war.
I wearily told him about Mr. Jones.
“That’s really cool!” my father said, with an excitement he did not try to contain. His son had kept another person alive. I suppose this is good enough reason to be proud.
It is strange, however, to point out the difference in our perspectives. I was wasted, fatigued from the battle that I had endured all day. For me, it was work and although I probably should have been more appreciative, I just couldn’t be bothered at that moment.
My father, of course, saw it as it really was: keeping another human being alive.
I fell into an exhausted sleep.
The next morning I was up, bright and early. I had to get back to the hospital for work. No, I had to get there for another shift of keeping someone else alive.
Its amazing what a little sleep can do for the human spirit!